Thursday, January 8, 2015

Philemon: a Book Report

The following is from a work-in-progress called "The Bible: a Book Report" in which I read each book of the Bible, summarize it in my own words, and occasionally give some commentary.  I will also include artwork by famous artists.

Paul’s letter to his friend Philemon is believed to be authentic (written by Paul).  It is also Paul’s shortest letter (355 words in Greek), and his most controversial, as it takes as its subject the status of a runaway slave.  The general attitude toward slavery in the New Testament is complicated.  Nowhere does the New Testament condemn slavery.  In fact, letters like 2 Timothy and Titus actually tell slaves to obey their masters.  However, in books like 1 Corinthians, Paul writes that, in Christ, “there is neither slave nor free.”  The picture that emerges is a kind of two-fold status for Christian slaves.  In the church community, slaves had a kind of equality with everyone else.  But, in the larger social world, they remained slaves.  Put another way, they were “spiritually” free, but physically still enslaved.  I should also mention that in the Roman empire of the first century (the social context of the New Testament), slavery was widespread and accepted as a fact of life.

Roman mosaic of slaves from 2nd century C.E.

Which brings us to Paul’s letter to Philemon.  Paul was writing from prison (probably in Ephesus) to Philemon (probability in Colossae).  The person Paul sends to deliver his letter is Onesimus, Philemon’s slave.  Paul does not explicitly say that Philemon has run away, but the letter suggests something to that effect.  It is also possible that Philemon actually sent Onesimus to visit Paul in prison, and Paul is just sending him back.  Either way, Paul writes affectionately of Onesimus, calling him “my child,” and his exhortation to Philemon is “that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave—a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.”  Paul promises to repay Philemon for any lost income he suffered during Onesimus’ absence.  Though Paul does not explicitly tell Philemon to free Onesimus, it seems he is strongly encouraging it.  At the very least, Paul tells Philemon to treat Onesimus as a “brother” in Christ.

Papyrus 87, the oldest fragment from the Book of Philemon, dates from 3rd century C.E.

Thus, I think the letter to Philemon is a good representation of how early Christians viewed slavery.  They did not necessarily condemn it (they were not abolitionists), but they called for a changed relationship between master and slave, based on the equalizing nature of their new identity in Christ.  It is interesting how later Christians have interpreted Philemon as both justifying and condemning slavery.  Scholar Barbara Geller writes: “In the antebellum United States, both proslavery advocates and abolitionists appropriated the letter to support their views of slavery.  Some of the former argued that Paul had indeed returned the slave Onesimus to Philemon, and that Philemon himself was both a Christian and a slaveholder.  Conversely, some abolitionists argued that Paul, as a Jew, could not possibly have returned a fugitive slave to his owner.  They cited Deuteronomy 23:15 with its injunction that “slaves who have escaped to you from their owners shall not be given back to them,” as well as other texts from the Hebrew Bible which set limits on the duration of enslavement.”  The point here is that the Bible has been used throughout history to support wildly different views and practices.

Slavery existed in the United States of America from its founding until 1864.

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